Marrying the earthy conventions of soul music with the more elevated concerns of the all-American spiritual quest may seem like an impossible task. But Nashville rock 'n' roller Jon Tiven and California songwriter and poet Stephen Kalinich create a synthesis of down-home blues and high-flown poetry on their new full-length, Shortcuts to Infinity/Symptomology, which features Tiven's talent for the rock-soul-blues readymade and Kalinich's flair for undercutting New Age bromides with humor and humility. At nearly two hours, the double album gazes outward into space while remaining rooted in the mundane concerns of mortality, success and rock 'n' roll itself.
Recorded in Nashville at Tiven's Hormone Studios and at Dan Penn's Better Songs and Gardens, Shortcuts to Infinity/Symptomology has its origins in a 2006 journey Tiven and Kalinich made to India with singer-songwriter P.F. Sloan.
"Traveling with Stevie and Phil [Sloan] was like being with these Brill Building guys," Tiven says of their trip, during which the trio received blessings from spiritual leader Sri Sathya Sai Baba. "That's because everything is a song for those guys, and everything we do is an opportunity for them to start singing. I didn't know Stevie that well at that point."
Tiven began writing songs with Kalinich, who had already achieved fame as a songwriting partner with The Beach Boys. Born in Endicott, N.Y., Kalinich moved to California as a young man, and began collaborating with Brian and Dennis Wilson in the mid-'60s. Signed to The Beach Boys' Brother Records label, he wrote "Little Bird" and "Be Still" with Dennis, and the songs appeared on the 1968 Friends album.
"In the Brother Records period, I always wrote the lyrics first, and then the music came after, with both Dennis and Brian," Kalinich says via email. "Sometimes,they would ask me to change a word, and when I was younger, I was somewhat resistant. But as I grew, it became a part of the process. On 'Little Bird,' they took out a whole section I wrote. Sometimes when I recite [it] at a concert, I put it back in."
A couple of years after their India trip, Kalinich recorded "Everything's Exploding," a song he had written with Tiven. It appeared on Kalinich's 2011 full-length California Feeling and featured a vocal by Tiven — the first singing Tiven had done on record since his turn as vocalist on The Yankees' 1978 album High 'n' Inside.
After moving to Nashville in 2002, Tiven produced records by P.F. Sloan and Frank Black. Although he's perhaps best known as a producer and a songwriter, Tiven acquits himself well as vocalist throughout the two discs of Shortcuts/Symptomology. "I was more concerned about my vocals coming across in a way that wouldn't embarrass me than anything else about this record," he says.
Along with Tiven's guitar and saxophone, the records feature Cody Dickinson's drums and, on "Out of the Darkness," guitar by Queen's Brian May. Also present are vocalist Willie Jones and famed guitarist Steve Cropper. Still, the core of the project remains Kalinich's words and Tiven's soul-inflected music.
"I think humor illuminates the human condition," says Kalinich. "We need humor to survive." This aspect of Symptomology — which is credited to the fictional duo of Yo Ma Ma, with Kalinich becoming The Reverend Stevie Nobody and Tiven assuming the persona of Jack Hashtag — comes through on "Weed," a tune about pot-smoking.
Meanwhile, "Cul de Sac" rides along on an R&B groove, sporting these lines: "I scratch my balls / I bounce off walls / I do it in the malls, in the hall / And even in my overalls." In fact, you could hear Symptomology as an attempt to satirize the excesses of the rock lifestyle.
The Shortcuts disc is more serious, but even here, Tiven mixes soul guitar with saxophone parts that evoke Roy Wood's long-ago '70s band Wizzard and David Bowie circa Young Americans. The music boogies while the words attempt to straddle the gulf between desire and nothingness, and that may be as good a comment on the perilous state of rock as anything you'll hear this year.